When Lois Mailou Jones showed some of her African-influenced work to professors at the Académie Julian they were skeptical until she reminded them that Picasso and Modigliani had been inspired by African art, too. "If anybody had the right to use it, I had it. It was my heritage”
Lois Mailou Jones (November 3, 1905 – June 9, 1998) was an artist who painted and influenced others during the Harlem Renaissance and beyond, during her long teaching and artistic career. She was born in Boston, Massachusetts and is buried on her beloved Martha's Vineyard in the Oak Bluffs Cemetery. Jones began painting as a child and had shows of her work when she was in high school. "Every summer of my childhood, my mother took me and my brother to Martha’s Vineyard island. I began painting in watercolor which even today is my pet medium."
After graduation from the School of the Museum of Art in Boston, she worked with textiles until a decorator told her that, "You couldn't have done this, you're a colored girl." She began looking for a way for her name to become known and was turned down for a job at her alma mater. She was hired by Charlotte Hawkins Brown after some initial reservations, and founded the art department at Palmer Memorial Institute in North Carolina. As a prep school teacher, she coached a basketball team, taught folk dancing, and played the piano for church services. Only one year later, she was recruited to join the art department at Howard University in Washington D.C., and remained as professor of design and watercolor painting until her retirement in 1977. While developing her own work as an artist, she is also known as an outstanding mentor.
Lois Mailou Jones, Les Fetiches
In 1927, she was awarded a diploma in design with honors and went on to do graduate studies at prestigious schools in the U.S. and France. She received her bachelor’s degree from Howard University in 1945, graduating magna cum laude, and an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters from Suffolk University in Boston. She also has received honorary degrees from Colorado State Christian University, Massachusetts College of Art, and Howard University and was elected Fellow of The Royal Society of Arts in London. Her work is in museums all over the world and valued by collectors.
In 1937, for her first sabbatical from Howard University on a general educational fellowship, she went to Paris for the first time where she worked very hard producing 35 to 40 pieces during one year’s time, including "Les Fetiches" a stunning, African inspired oil which is owned by the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and one of her best known works and her first piece which combined traditional African forms with Western techniques and materials to create a vibrant and compelling work.
Lois Mailou Jones, Ubi Girl
The French were so inspiring. The people would stand and watch me and say, “mademoiselle, you are so very talented. You are so wonderful.” In other words, the color of my skin didn’t matter in Paris and that was one of the main reasons why I think I was encouraged and began to really think I was talented.
Beginning in the 1920's, the influential black philosopher Alain Locke advised African-American artists to embrace both African art and modernism. Jones was one artist who, for a while at least, took Locke's advice. In Paris, she recalled, "all the galleries, the museums were featuring African sculptures, African designs." She remembers showing some of her own African-influenced work to professors at the Académie Julian. They were skeptical about her abandoning the landscapes she had been painting (she did street scenes like "Le Moulin Rouge"), until she reminded them that Pablo Picasso and Modigliani had been inspired by African art, too. "If anybody had the right to use it," she told them, "I had it. It was my heritage, and so they had to give in."
Lois Mailou Jones, Africa
After marrying Haitian artist Louis Vergniaud Pierre-Noel in 1953, Jones traveled and lived in Haiti. In many of her pieces one can see the influence of the Haitian culture, with its African influences, which reinvigorated the way she looked at the world. Her work became more abstract and hard-edged, after her marriage to Pierre-Noel. Her impressionist techniques gave way to a spirited, richly patterned, and brilliantly colored style.
In 1970, she traveled to eleven African countries, which enabled Jones to synthesize a body of designs and motifs that she combined in large, complex compositions. In 1980, she was honored by President Jimmy Carter at the White House for outstanding achievements in the arts. Her paintings grace the permanent collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, National Museum of American Art, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, National Portrait Gallery, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the National Palace in Haiti, and the National Museum of Afro-American Artists and many others.
Lois Mailou Jones, The Ascent of Ethiopia
In her nineties, Jones still painted. Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton collected one of her island seascapes "Breezy Day at Gay Head" while they were in the White House. Lois felt that her greatest contribution to the art world was "proof of the talent of black artists." “The African-American artist is important in the history of art and I have demonstrated it by working and painting here and all over the world." But her fondest wish was to be known as an "artist" -- without labels like black artist, or woman artist. She has produced work that echoes her pride in her African roots and American ancestry.
After her death, her friend and advisor, Dr. Chris Chapman completed a book about her life and the African American pioneers she had worked with and been friends with, including Dr. Carter G. Woodson, Alain Locke, Dorothy West, Josephine Baker, and Matthew Henson. Entitled “Lois Mailou Jones: a life in color”, it is available through Xlibris and museum stores.
Lois Mailou Jones, The Lovers
In 1996, Jones' paintings were featured in an exhibition entitled "Paris, the City of Light" that appeared at several museums throughout the country including the New Orleans Museum of Art, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and the Studio Museum of Harlem. The exhibition also featured the works of Barbara Chase-Riboud, Edward Clark, Harold Cousins, Beauford Delaney, Herbert Gentry, and Larry Potter. The exhibition examined the importance of Paris as an artistic mecca for African-American artists during the 20 years that followed World War II. From November 14, 2009 to February 29, 2010, a retrospective exhibit of her work entitled “Lois Mailou Jones: a life in vibrant color” was held at the Mint Museum of Art in Charlotte, N.C. The traveling exhibit included 70 paintings showcasing her various styles and experiences: America, France, Haiti, and Africa.
Great African American artists brought to you by Paris-based ethnic painter Ealy Mays
§ REFERENCES / SOURCES / LINKS
- Michael O’Sullivan (December 24, 2010).“Lois Mailou Jones: Color tells a story”.The Washington Post.
- “Lois Mailou Jones: A Life in Vibrant Color at The Women’s Museum”.The Dallas Art News. July 12, 2011.
- Official website
- “An Interview with Lois Mailou Jones”, Charles H. Rowell,Callaloo,Vol. 12 No. 2, p. 357-378